There is something about the A.M.'s self-titled debut that I just can't place, some echo that evades immediate connection. The band owes an obvious debt to the late Jeff Buckley -- band members Michael Tighe (on vocals and guitars) and Parker Kindred (on drums and vocals) played with Buckley. But there is more.
Tighe's guitar playing is tight and first-rate, and the rhythm section of Kindred and Wyatt lends a danceable energy to much of the disc. But there is something missing on this disc that I can't quite put my finger on.
It's the same feeling I get listening to bands like the Smiths and the Cure. Each of their component parts seems remarkable, but somehow the sum of those parts leaves me a little cold, leaves me feeling as if I am on the outside.
On songs like "If I Was the Sheriff", they seem to reach back to early '80s keyboard driven New Wave, but with a heavier, more urgent edge. Part of it is Tighe's vocal -- British-tinged and exploring the upper registers -- and part of it is his guitar, which is up front in the mix.
On the Roxy Music-influenced "Utopia", Tighe sounds like Bowie circa 1983 while Kindred and drummer Andrew Wyatt do their best Prince imitations -- taking rather obscure and absurd lyrics ("Hey Angel / I bet no one's ever called you that before / But I will / I'm levitating off your parent's floor / Hey Angel / Thought I saw you smiling when we blasted off / It's alright / You're looking shiny in the concert light, yeah / Now Angel, I understand I do") and giving them more life than they probably deserve.
While the band seems to be wearing its influences on its sleeve, there remains something else here that is difficult to get at. Perhaps the influences are so much in the foreground that the band recedes, drifts to the background that it lends a coolness to the entire effort.
The guitar on "It's Not for Me" is simple, a near-perfect underscoring of the vocal line and the synthesizer lends a lushness and beauty to the song. But the implied urgency of the lyric -- "I didn't really want to / But here's the chance to take the chance" -- is lost. On "Isolation" and "Deep City Diver", which open with snaky, Television-inspired guitar lines and are both girded up by Kindred's dance hall drumming, the overall effect is a formal stiffness. The songs are just too damn cool, too distant for me to really let myself go.
The one exception maybe the driving "Spellbound", a critique of the modern world -- or at least that is what the obscure lyrics seem to be -- set atop a grinding guitar and lush keyboard. It is the one place on the disc where the sum of the parts seem to add up (the break on "There Is A Time" comes closest).
Opening with a neat little keyboard run and geometric guitar line, Tighe fairly chokes out the lyrics in falsetto, "Priceless Pain / In a go get 'em world / It's dynasty time / For me and someone." It could be about the American adventure in Iraq or about the primacy of commerce or about the pace of our world in the new millennium, a world in which "Envy is the craze", in which you're always "back in line." There are bits of Bowie here, of "Young Americans and "Modern Love", bits of Roxy Music and Sparks and the Discipline-era King Crimson running through this song. But unlike much of this disc, the influences add up to something interesting, something new.
The A.M. have all the makings of a great band. I only wish they could have found a way to take all their influences and meld them into something more than great background rock.